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Alaska and energy

During my recent visit to Anchorage, Alaska to speak at that city’s Bioneers satellite conference, the friendly locals seemed eager to educate me about their local energy issues. Some of what I learned struck me as important to share with a wider audience.

Alaska is, of course, a huge energy exporter. Crude from the North Slope saved America’s energy bacon back in the ’80s, helping to lower world oil prices and bankrupt the evil Soviet empire. Production there has declined from a peak of over two million barrels per day to only 600,000 or so today. Once the flow drops below 500,000 barrels, there will be problems with icing in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system. Not good.

The state’s economy is based almost entirely on resource extraction. Everyone gets a check annually from the Alaska Permanent Fund, set up in 1976 primarily by the efforts of then Governor Jay Hammond. High oil prices mean big dividends: in 2008-2009 extra-large payouts made Governor Palin look good to her constituents, though she was in no way responsible.

Alaska has enormous opportunities for renewables—wind, microhydro, geothermal, tidal, even solar. But these are far from being adequately developed, and progress in that direction will take time and lots of investment—a dramatically higher pace of investment than is currently evident.

Anchorage (by far the largest city in the state) faces a particular challenge with natural gas: currently nearly all houses are heated with gas, but supplies from Cook Inlet will run low in two years, even sooner with an abnormally cold winter. Most options to replace current sources (more drilling, LNG, alternative energy) will take longer than two years to develop. There is no serious planning for what to do about this.

Then there is the situation of the native villages. On one hand, the indigenous peoples of the north might seem well placed to weather the changes ahead as industrial society succumbs to peak oil, peak coal, and peak gas: they have cultural traditions of self-sufficiency, small populations relative to land area, and access to lots of wild protein on the hoof (moose, caribou). However, as James van Lanen of Alaska Department of Fish and Game wrote to me in an email just the other day:

“Alaska Native villages are in a very precarious situation. These remote villages are only accessible by motorized travel via air or watercraft. They are entirely dependent upon fossil-fuel systems for goods and services: food, heat, health care. They have no contact with the outside world without fossil fuels.

“Some villages obtain more of their food resources from wild sources than others. It would be safe to say that on average 80% of the protein consumption in a village is from wild sources. Berries and Plants supplement some part of the overall diet but this is small. The two important things to consider are (1) much of the food consumed comes from industrial sources and is shipped in via small aircraft and (2) wild food harvests are currently almost entirely fossil-fuel dependent (there is a well-embedded 'machine culture' in native villages; I believe that there is no extant ability to obtain significant amounts of wild foods without the use of machines)...”

“Peak Energy will hit Alaska villages sooner and more intensely than many other places. Fuel is already up to $9 per gallon in some places. As it becomes uneconomical for current supply operations to continue the industrial resources these villages rely on will fizzle out.”

“Most village people are aware of their complete dependence upon fossil fuels. Many elders foresee a future collapse due to increasing costs and modern dependence. However, there is no general awareness of the phenomenon of Peak Energy in these communities. There is no awareness that the entire system may break down. Alaska villages desperately need to become educated in what we are facing.”

I came away from my too-brief sojourn in Anchorage with both a deep appreciation for this land of great natural beauty, contrasts, and extremes, and an equally deep concern for how Alaskans will deal with their enormous energy challenges. Some of those challenges are going to present themselves forcibly in the very near future. 

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